Manaslu 2012: In the Clouds

The pre-expedition Puja

The first acclimatization foray up Manaslu, a carry to Camp 1, on which the team went after the obligatory puja, was very invigorating. I found crossing the hot white expanse of the glacier easier than I’d expected, at least psychologically. I knew the way, and it helped; I knew that our destination for the day, the yellow tents, perched up on a slope above the glacier, looked deceptively closer than they really were, and it, too, helped; I knew it would not be easy to walk for about three hours above 5000 meters with a heavy backpack, and it helped that I was not surprised. When we reached ‘Crampton Point’ – the spot on the way to Camp 1, where climbers normally stop to put crampons on their boots – I shut away all my thoughts, lowered my head and simply followed the trail in the snow.

The Junkies’ Base Camp

The glacier was dark, and the mountain looked drier than I remembered. It made for easier walking because the snow layer was so thin, but the crevasses were wider than the year before, forcing one to tread as cautiously as possible and to clip into the safety ropes fixed along the route. After walking for about 2 hours, I raised my eyes from the trail – I was at Camp 1. There I dropped off the gear I would later use higher on the mountain: a light sleeping bag, my long-suffering down suit, goggles, extra-warm mitts for the summit day, some chocolate, etc. When the rest of the team had arrived and rested, we made the descent to base camp. At lunch we exchanged our positive impressions about the rotation, and began planning the next one, during which we would spend two nights above base camp: one at Camp 1 and one at Camp 2. We would then be acclimatized and ready for the summit push.

The first fixed rope on the way to Camp 1

All climbing plans on the mountain, however, depend not only on the readiness of the mountaineers but also – and to a great extent – on the weather. Meteorological services providing detailed weather forecasts, though expensive, are nowadays used in expedition planning by all reputable commercial mountaineering companies to give their clients a better, safer chance to reach the summit. Our forecast was calling for patience, promising several days of heavy precipitation on the mountain. I remembered well how in 2011 we spent over a week at base camp between climbing days, watching snow turn into rain, then, snow again. When the sun came out at last, we had to sit tight for another two or three days to let the new snow consolidate on the slopes of the mountain to avoid the risk of avalanches. Thus, I fished out of my duffel bag whatever books I had brought with me, and got ready to wait for Manaslu. Yet, I knew I could not simply sit around: I had to find a way to keep my body active and ready for when the mountain’s grim mood would change. Rain or snow, every morning I would go for a 40-minute walk from the Junkies’ base camp up to the first rope, fixed to the steep rocky section on the way to ‘Crampton Point’. I used those walks to observe myself: how my breathing would get easier day by day but then, for some reason, harder again; how my legs would feel heavier one morning and lighter the next. My daily walks were anything but exciting, but I felt them to be necessary – I had to move to counter the staleness outside.

Another ‘snow day’

One day I decided to join a few of my team mates who were going down to Samagaon for the afternoon, for a change of scenery. Wet, heavy snow had made the already muddy trail very slippery indeed, and we descended carefully from our base camp in the clouds. After negotiating about 600 gray, damp meters, I decided to go back up: I realized that I didn’t need a ‘change of scenery’ – it was at base camp, at the foot of Manaslu, where I wanted to be. I didn’t care if it rained or snowed for another 10 days: I would wait right there for as long as was necessary; then, I would go to the summit, or crawl, if I must; only after that would I follow the downward path away from the mountain. It was my second time attempting Manaslu, and I didn’t want there to be a third because I loved, and hated and dreaded the Spirit Mountain too much. I wouldn’t give her a chance to ‘escape’ me again, nor give myself an opportunity to run away from her. That day, climbing stubbornly back up into the cloud of depressing weather, breathing in the wet, thin air, I believed my determination to reach the top of Manaslu to be immutable. I thought stupidly that the only obstacles the mountain could put between me and the summit were bad weather, exhausting climbing and icy, sleepless nights. I’d forgotten Manaslu’s other name was the Killer Mountain; I’d forgotten what mountaineers should never forget – that the risk they take, when they climb ever higher after their dreams, is real. On the morning of the 23rd of September, at the end of our second acclimatization rotation, I – and the rest of the climbing community – was violently reminded of it.

Manaslu gone hiding

Manaslu 2012: The Trek

The monsoon was slowly coming to an end, but the weather was still wet and hot in Kathmandu when, on the 1st of September, Altitude Junkies set out on the Manaslu expedition. We were 13 western climbers, including the expedition leader, Phil Crampton. For once, I was not the youngest of the group, with another 25-year old – a whole 8 months younger than yours truly – joining the team. At least half of the climbers, including the other female member, E, were planning to make the ascent without using supplemental oxygen. After freezing and turning around at Camp 4 in 2011, I had no such ambitions: my circulation issues will, probably, never allow me to climb above 7500 meters without O2. My only wish was to see if, after my most recent injury, I still had it in me to reach another 8000-meter summit.

The Drive to Arughat

A long and infamously bumpy truck ride took the Junkies to Arughat at about 500 meters above sea level, where our Sherpas immediately went to work setting up tents in the rich, heavy afternoon air. It was impossible to stay inside, however, as one felt as if their skin was turning liquid and melting off them. It would be that hot and humid for at least another 3 days of the trek, until the team reached the cooler air of higher elevations; we were keen to get going.

I had done the Manaslu trek the year before, and considered it to be the most beautiful and unspoilt of the popular trekking routes in Nepal. I had hoped naively that if I surrounded myself again with the lush post-monsoon colors, the tall waterfalls and the loud, powerful rivers, I could, perhaps, turn back time and start afresh right where I had left off. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Part of a very strong and well-prepared team, I felt I was its weakest link. I missed my strength and conviction of the year before, when I found it relatively easy to follow the fastest climber in the group. Now, I staggered, doubting every step.

Minor Obstacles 🙂

‘I have read about you in Mark Horrell’s book about Manaslu 2011,’ E told me after a couple of days of trekking.

‘And what did he say about me?’ I wondered.

‘He said you changed shirts every day. And that you were very fast…’

‘Well, you’ve seen the T-shirts… but I don’t think I can show you me at my fastest, unfortunately…’

The trek got cooler and, thus, easier, after the team had reached Dyang (Deng), where I bathed in the cold river by the village, washing off at last the heat and the fatigue of the previous days. Walking back to the campsite in my wet clothes, the refreshing evening breeze on my skin, I smiled because I was feeling the first shy touches of cold again – this meant that I would soon be in my element.

 

Another day of trekking took us to Namrung, and one more – to Samagaon at 3500 meters above sea level, where we would spend three nights acclimatizing before following a steep muddy trail up to Manaslu Base Camp 1400 meters higher. This being my second time in Sama, I was pleased to see how it had changed. For instance, the tired little lodge where we stayed in 2011 was turning into a much larger structure of grey rock and timber. Although still in the process of construction, the rooms were made available to our group by the lady of the house, from under whose traditional dress was showing a new pair of Nike’s.

Samagaon from the Trail to Base Camp

There was not much to do in Samagaon, except wait, drink sweet milk tea and read. Luckily, I remembered the way to the beautiful glacial lake at the foot of Manaslu called Birendra Tal, where I went for a swim a couple of times, the more reckless of my team mates joining me in spite of the very low water temperature. Phil and most of the Sherpas left for Base Camp a day ahead of the rest of the team, to get the place ready for our arrival. I must say, I dreaded following them because in retracing my footsteps from the year before, I was walking along the same path that had led a much stronger me to a very painful failure. What was I expecting now, I, whom I hardly recognized: slow, and clumsy, and awkward, and miserable, and ‘whole’ no longer? I was a ghost in a rusty machine, which refused to perform up to standard – like one of those outdated robots from the sci-fi movies of my childhood. At base camp, I would sit in my tent every night for the first week, with tears painting faint lines on my face for no particular reason. I don’t believe I cried out of self-pity; I was simply a mirror to the rainy weather, mourning the passage of time, the weakening of ties, the disappearance of things from my body and of warmth – from my heart; things loosing support, things missing, things not being missed… It was a bad time, that first week at base camp. I couldn’t wait for the climbing to start, for the moving to replace the thinking.

Back from Manaslu

Good-bye to Manaslu

My Dear Readers,

First of all, let me thank you all for your support and concern during this past Manaslu expedition. Your kind words and prayers meant the world to me while I was on the mountain.

I returned to Kathmandu yesterday, late in the afternoon, after the Junkies’ expedition was successfully completed. 15 of us, climbers and Sherpas (yours truly included), reached the summit of the Spirit Mountain early in the morning on the 1st of October. After the very eventful expedition, it feels wonderful to be back home, in the warm and sunny Kathmandu. I will take a couple of days to get some sleep and gather my thoughts before I begin writing and posting the story of the climb. Drop by soon if you’re curious :)!

Love,

Mila

P.S.: I dedicate the story I am about to tell to those who never made it to the end of it – the victims of the recent Manaslu avalanche. May they rest in peace on the glowing slopes of Manaslu under the clearest of skies – the eyes of the mountain gods.

The Way to Manaslu

I decided to post quick updates to my blog while I am climbing after all. See how it works…

We are leaving Samagaon for base camp tomorrow afternoon to begin our acclimatization routine on the mountain. The trek up to here has been hard for me in more ways than one.

I walked on familiar terrain, wearing some of the same clothes, but everything felt painfully different from the same trek in 2011. Scars, old and new, were impossible to ignore. I walked last, breathing heavily, recalling how, only a year earlier I had run with ease past the same villages, eager to climb my first 8000-er. I was excited, I was fighting for something and not against like I believe I am doing now: I am fighting against the fact that I am not strong, or brave or deserving of the beautiful things I want to see and touch. I was often told I didn’t look like a climber. I had no idea what that meant for a long time. During the trek to Samagaon I think, I saw my true self for the first time: someone who is always and everywhere out of place.

I don’t know how I can climb like this. I’ll just try my non-climber best, I suppose.

Manaslu 2012

Manaslu

At this time last year I was preparing for my first 8000-meter peak expedition on Manaslu, the 8th highest mountain in the world. The climb was a fantastic learning experience. It showed me exactly what I had to do to prepare for the ascent of Everest, which I successfully completed last May. As those of you, who have been following my adventures for a while, know, I did not reach the summit of Manaslu last fall. When I was leaving the mountain, I wished but doubted that I could return one day – to thank it, in a way, for exposing to me my every weakness and, therefore, helping me grow as a climber and individual, as well as for introducing me to some of the best of my current friends. However, I didn’t think I would be coming back soon.

My original plan for this fall was to climb another 8000-er in the Himalaya called Makalu. The world’s 5th highest, the Black Mountain, as it is known, would have been a much more challenging ascent than any of my previous ones. Needless to say, I was very excited about it. I went to Khan Tengri with the sole purpose of training for it and, although the expedition in Kazakhstan was by no means a success, it did – paradoxically – give me the confidence I needed to attempt Makalu. However, my plans changed unexpectedly once I arrived in Kathmandu – the Makalu expedition had to be cancelled – and I was left with a hole in my schedule, plans and dreams the size of an 8000-er. The fact was all the more disappointing because I was dying to go back to the Himalaya, and go I would.

Tarke Sherpa smiling at the camera at Camp II on Manaslu

‘But why on Earth are you going to Manaslu again? Surely, you’re not one of those people, who can’t live with themselves unless they reach the summit?’ a lot of my acquaintances asked when I gave them the news. No, I don’t believe I am one of ‘those people’. However, I wanted to return, and I wondered what it would feel like to see ‘my first BIG love’ again. I don’t think of climbing Manaslu now as taking care of unfinished business: in coming back to the mountain, I will simply be returning to a place, which is dear to me in the company of people I enjoy climbing with.

Manaslu East Summit

‘It’s the same mountain! You’ll be bored!’ Not at all: just like a stunning opera performance is worth hearing again, a large wreck deep in the sea is worth a second dive, and a pristine white beach somewhere at the very edge of the world and its worries – another trip, Manaslu is more than worth coming back to, whether or not I have, in fact, changed as much as I like to think – which, I believe, I have. I am a different person now from the overwhelmed girl, who stumbled into base camp last year; I am certainly a different climber. With this in mind, I feel Manaslu 2012 will be nothing like Manaslu 2011, for better or worse.

To climb Manaslu I will once again join Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies. The expedition team leaves Kathmandu on the 1st of September, and should return after 40-45 days. You can follow us online via Phil’s regular dispatches at http://altitudejunkies.com/dispatchmanaslu12.html
This time I won’t promise to update my blog while I’m on the mountain (I never manage to do it, anyway), however, do check back once in a while because there will be access to Internet at base camp, and I may have the time and the inclination to blog. Otherwise, I will, as always, post a detailed account of the expedition when I return to Kathmandu. Drop by if you’re curious :)!

Love,

Mila

P.S.: I would like to dedicate the climb to my friend, Christophe Manfroi, who was lost in the Alps at the beginning of August.
You are with me always, mon ami: in my every step, in my every smile, in my every prayer to our mountain Gods, among whom I know you to be now.